Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim by Ziauddin Sardar
Sardar is described on the jacket of this book as 'one of the world's foremost Muslim intellectuals, and author of more than forty books on science, religion and contemporary culture'. This book is his intellectual autobiography, a vivid account of his explorations of different branches of Islam - from the mystical to the political - and of his travels throughout most of the Islamic world. Sardar's interests are varied, and he is not ashamed to change his views over the years. Where he is consistent, however, is in his attempt to claim the middle ground in the confrontation between Islam and modernity. He is, for example, critical both of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. Sardar has been criticized in The Spectator for 'having his baclava and eating it', but his position - that Rushdie should neither be punished nor forgiven - seems to me entirely understandable.
Sardar's account of the Rushdie affair is, in fact, one of the most interesting chapters in this book. After reading the entire novel during a long flight, Sardar arrived back home feeling shocked, frightened and angry. The novel was not yet notorious and Sardar was not being infected by mass hysteria. He gives a clear explanation for the strength of his feelings, saying that the novel's central strand is a detailed, transparent and vicious parody of the life of the Prophet and the Birth of Islam. 'The blasphemies in the novel', he writes, 'were not accidental; they were the essential reason that the novel was written'. And, since Muslims relate to the Prophet directly and personally, every Muslim felt that 'every word, every jibe, every obscenity in the book was directed at him personally'. The worst effect of the Rushdie affair, in Sardar's view, was the feeling of impotence it inculcated in moderate Muslims. Many young Muslims evidently felt that the subsequent fatwa restored their sense of power and identity; Sardar repeatedly tried to persuade them that this was a delusion but felt that his efforts were largely in vain.
Still more illuminating is Sardar's account of his years in Saudi Arabia working for an organization called the Hajj Research Centre. The aim of this ultimately unsuccessful organization was to save historic buildings in and around Mecca from being bulldozed down so that ever more highways and high-rise hotels could be constructed for pilgrims. Sardar's account of Saudi thinking is memorable: 'The Saudis approached technology as though it was theology. And in both, complexity and plurality was shunned. God is one, the prophet is one (...) And all problems of Hajj (i.e. the pilgrimage to Mecca - R.C.) had a single solution: modern technology. If two-lane roads out of Mecca cause congestion, then they should be increased to four, or six or eight (...) Moreover, if Truth was monolithic, then the holy areas should reflect the monolithic nature of Truth. So, everything had to be at the same level. There was no place in Mecca for history or tradition or culture (...) I remember the fateful day when the old Ottoman library was demolished and the land cleared flat.'
Curiously, the most formidable enemy of the Hajj Research Group was the Bin Laden Group, which had a monopoly on 'all construction of a religious nature in the Kingdom' and 'was as zealous in its development work as it was in its religious outlook.' Sardar concludes with the words: 'The more we issued calls "to suspend all demolition and construction projects for reconsideration in view of their far-reaching and irrevocable character", the more (the Bin Laden Group) demolished.'